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Congressional Staff Legal Changes: Harassment Outrage and Intern Pay Pushes Improvements for Congressional Staff

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ann Marie Johnson and David Baker
December 8, 2019

Disturbing media sound bites and irate public discourse have prompted Congress to revisit and to legislate certain legal changes for its staff. Two issues particularly under a contentious public spotlight concern harassment and intern pay. A review of both issues follows and may suggest a strained but budding bipartisanship toward improvements in the working conditions of Congressional staff.

Harassment

The passage of The Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (Me Too) Congress Act was triggered by public outcry over December 2018 news articles revealing that Congressional Members may have sexual harassment settlements paid out of federal funds. This legislation reverses parts of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act. That act favored the accused legislator by requiring complainants (1) to undergo counseling, (2) to participate in mandatory mediation and (3) to suffer a 30-day cooling off period. Moreover, rather than the Office of Compliance settling sexual harassment claims out of tax payer funds, the Me Too Act now compels Congressional Members to be personally financially responsible for sexual harassment conduct (but not accused discrimination).

Many members of Congress do not believe the law goes far enough, according to various media sources. The Me Too Act does not demand discrimination settlements to come directly from the Congressional perpetrators. Furthermore, many Congressional Members require interns to sign broad non-disclosure agreements. These agreements are rationalized as essential to maintain the confidentiality of events and communications while working in Congressional Offices. Shockingly, some of the agreements do not stipulate exceptions for harassment or discrimination. These omissions make bringing an action problematical for interns to report such incidents.

Pay

Similar to the #MeToo movement’s calling out of harassment, social equity disparities cast light on the plight of unpaid interns in Congressional offices. Unlike for-profit internships, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, public agencies do not have to pay interns if they are, “Volunteers,” according to the Wage and Hour Division, Department of Labor, Fact Sheet #71, 2018. Previously, under the Congressional Accounting Act of 1995, intern pay was discretionary by individual Congressional offices. According to a 2017 study conducted by, “Pay Our Interns,” (a public interest nonprofit), 51% of Senate Republicans offered paid internships while only 31% of Democrats did so.

The federal budget for the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriated funding for intern pay. The Senate earmarked $8.8 million for intern pay while the House allocated $5.0 million. Senate funding is included in the accounts lawmakers use to pay staff salaries, official travel and office expenses. House funds are apportioned into a newly created account for each member office.

Critics feel that the current intern pay authorization is not flexible enough, does not pay enough and is not permanent enough since the funding could readily be removed. However, in response to the Pay Our Interns advocacy, bills have surfaced proposing a $15 hourly minimum wage, which the current legislation does not require. The $15 hourly rate also has been promoted by the freshman Congressional Members. Additionally, there is concern that the budget appropriations do not cover payment for House Member District Offices.

Congressman Adam Smith’s proposed House Intern Pay Act of 2019 establishes an allowance for compensation of interns serving in the House of Representatives. It calls for a minimum compensation rate of $15 per hour for the first year of enactment. The rate of intern pay would increase in tandem with increases in the Consumer Price Index each year thereafter. “For Congressional offices to represent the diverse interests of their constituents, it is important that everyone has the opportunity to engage in the legislative process and civic service,” Smith said in a press release. “Paid internships help bring a diversity of ideas and backgrounds to both the Washington, D.C. and local district offices, and expand equality of opportunity for all to participate in our democracy.”

Budding Bipartisanship?

It is too early to forecast bipartisan Congressional cooperation on employment issues arising from intense, pervasive public discourse. Yet, when widespread concern inflames civic consciousness, public opinion can ignite better workplace laws. Paraphrasing an insightful guideline to effective action, there is no limit to the good that Congress can do if it stops worrying about which party takes the credit.


Authors:

David L. Baker, Ph.D., is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration, California State University, San Bernardino. He has 30 years of experience in public agency management including over 12 years as the chief executive officer in two California counties. His research interests include public budgeting, public management, e‑government, organizational behavior, and the scholarship of teaching.

Ann M. Johnson received her JD/MA from the University of Cincinnati.  She practiced law at Michigan Court of Appeals and for the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C. After receiving a Ph.D., at University of Delaware she taught at University at Albany. Dr. Johnson is currently an associate professor at CSUSB, Management Department.

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